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MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM MOVEMENT


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Tougaloo College and the State of Mississippi
by Ernie Limbo, Tougaloo College

Quicktime video of Tougaloo
chaplain Larry Johnson
(922 KB - Summer 2002) *
Chapel at Tougaloo College

Throughout the South, and perhaps throughout America, white people, institutions, and society were considered superior to their black counterparts. Tougaloo College exists because African Americans refused to believe that black was inferior to white, and it continues to remind generations of students that white supremacy was a myth perpetuated by a people desperate to retain power. Tougaloo's existence dispels the romantic notion some have of the South's history.

In 1939, Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind was released as a motion picture. It claimed to be a story of the Old South, a civilization marked by courage and honor that was destroyed by the cruel armies of a barbaric nation. It was also a story about the love lives of the elite. Featuring beautiful young women, dashing gentlemen, and happy servants, Gone with the Wind's characters are connected by a common understanding of their place in society. Slaves are happy being slaves and the elite is happy being elite. Only the poor whites of both the North and the South pose any danger to this harmonious arrangement because of their unwillingness to remain in their subordinate positions. Many southerners, present and past, white and black, concur with those who awarded Gone with the Wind the Academy Award for Best Picture. Too few Americans, North and South, recognize the difference between a romantic tale of love and heroism, defeat and revival, and the history of the American South.

Mississippi once had its version of Gone with the Wind in antebellum Natchez, which block for block was once the home of more millionaires than other city in America. Many mansions remain as reminders of the lifestyles of the elite who lived there. Mississippi's version of Gone with the Wind included slave rebellions, executions, whipping, and exploitation. Its slaves were never happy being slaves, never content with a system which prevented them from bettering themselves. The continued existence of Tougaloo College testifies that African Americans as slaves and later as second-class citizens of a segregated America were not content with their lot and would work to improve themselves through education.

Their work would be frustrated and complicated at every step by elite whites determined to use race to divide and conquer a whole society, black and white, which was undereducated, poor, unhealthy, and rural. Elite whites used the doctrine of white supremacy to convince the poorest of whites that despite their poverty they had the advantage of being white. Even though they shared few economic interests, poor whites voted for elite white men maintaining white solidarity and thus white supremacy despite the elite's unwillingness to represent the economic and social interests of the poor of either race. Mississippi's institutions -- schools, colleges, and hospitals -- were underfunded for whites and scarcely available for blacks, yet the wealthy paid little in taxes and benefitted most from state and local appropriations.

Several of Mississippi's governors declared that to educate an African American was to ruin a good field hand. Tougaloo College proudly ruined field hands. In its early years, Tougaloo served as an elementary school and high school to provide African American Mississippians the basic educational background denied to many in Mississippi's segregated public schools.

In the 1960s, black southerners, encouraged by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, challenged white supremacy in Mississippi and throughout the South. Tougaloo was central to this struggle. It supplied activists who had never accepted the myth of white supremacy, and it gave those activists and their colleagues a safe place to rest -- the only such place available in the state of Mississippi.

* Johnson video by Indira Stewart (Brown '02), assited by Danny Stoltzman (Brown '02).

Brown University Tougaloo College STG